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Ears-on with Amazon’s new Echo earbuds, framebuds, and ringbud – TechCrunch

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Amazon announced more than a few devices today during an event at its headquarters in Seattle, and it was the smallest gadgets that made the biggest impression. The company built Alexa into earbuds, glasses and a ring with the Echo Buds, Echo Frames and Echo Loop, respectively. I’ve tried them all out.

The ones people are most likely to actually want are the earbuds, of course. With Bose noise reduction and Alexa functions built in, they’ll be a popular option for anyone who doesn’t want to take out their phone, but also doesn’t want to wear large over-hear headphones.

The Echo Buds are somewhat large — bigger than several sets of wireless headphones I’ve seen and tried, though they were comfortable after being corkscrewed into my ear.

They have two modes: noise reduction and passthrough, which you switch between with a double tap on either bud. The noise reduction was considerable, but certainly not to the level you’d expect from a pair of over-ears. In-ear headphones already provide a physical barrier to sound getting in, but the addition of three microphones on each ear (two external and one internal) let it do the usual electronic reduction as well. I could still hear the crowd around me and people speaking to me, but it was easily drowned out by the Billie Eilish song they queued up.

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Passthrough provided a quick and clear version of surrounding audio with no noticeable delay. Music and other stuff can still be played in this mode and it blended pretty seamlessly in.

Of course the Echo Buds, like pretty much everything else at the event, have Alexa built in. You get at the service via a wake word, a process that worked well for me.

Their little case looks more fiddly than it is. Magnets snap the contacts onto each other and it begins charging immediately. You should get some 4-5 hours with the buds, out to 20 hours if you drain the case too.

About five feet away from these headphones, and with a half hour wait to test out, were the new Echo Frames. These glasses can be customized with your prescription, though sadly the design and material are locked in.

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The oversized arms of the glasses house the Alexa hardware, and while the glasses themselves are pretty light, the thickness is definitely noticeable from any angle. The underside of the right arm has an activation button and a volume rocker, as well as the port for magnetic charging. The big shiny sides are touch sensitive; you swipe to accept a call, respond to Alexa offering more info and so on.

The sound is a bit like someone whispering in your ear — you wouldn’t want to listen to music on these, the Amazon folks admitted. But speech was clear and Alexa commands were handled quickly.

The speakers aren’t exactly hidden: Each arm has two speakers inside, each of which has two “ports,” one on top and one on bottom. I asked the demonstrator probably five times why there are ports on the top if the sound needs to come out the bottom, but all she would say is that it’s how they made the directional audio work.

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Perhaps that’s also why I could hear the Alexa responses from a foot or two away in a crowded room. You can configure it so only certain things get played automatically, which is good, because if the person on the bus next to me heard some of the texts I get, they might be alarmed.

Honestly it’s not much worse, though a bit clearer, than if someone is using bad earbuds. Just be aware that if you use these things, others might be hearing that whispered text conversation too.

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Last, and weirdest, is the Echo Loop. It’s a big fat ring that you can use to ask Alexa questions and hear the answers. The big part with the dots isn’t actually the speaker, but rather part of the microphone array — presumably for subtracting ambient noise so the speech recognition works better. The inside of the ring is where you’ll find the tiny speaker — the smallest of any Amazon device, it was said — and mic.

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You tap a button to activate Alexa, and the ring will vibrate to let you know it’s time to talk. You then ask your hand the question you have in mind, and afterwards cup the ring to your ear — right up to it, because this speaker is tiny. A second or two later, out comes Alexa’s voice, sounding like an old transistor radio, telling you the weather in Barcelona or whatever.

Does it work? Yes, it does. It’s a ring you can ask questions. The speaker is pretty quiet and you need to find the right position to hear it well (admittedly it was fairly loud in the room), but the ring speaks.

It’s not for everybody, which is why it, along with the glasses, are part of the new Day One Edition series of questionable devices. But if you can think of a way it might be useful, be assured: It works as advertised.



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Firefox 86 brings multiple Picture-in-Picture, “Total Cookie Protection”

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Mozilla released Firefox 86 yesterday, and the browser is now available for download and installation for all major operating systems, including Android. Along with the usual round of bug fixes and under-the-hood updates, the new build offers a couple of high-profile features—multiple Picture-in-Picture video-watching support, and (optional) stricter cookie separation, which Mozilla is branding Total Cookie Protection.

Taking Firefox 86 for a spin

Firefox 86 became the default download at mozilla.org on Tuesday—but as an Ubuntu 20.04 user, I didn’t want to leave the Canonical-managed repositories just to test the new version. This is one scenario in which snaps truly excel—providing you with a containerized version of an application, easily installed but guaranteed not to mess with your “real” operating system.

As it turns out, Firefox’s snap channel didn’t get the message about build 86 being the new default—the latest/default snap is still on build 85. In order to get the new version, I needed to snap refresh firefox --channel=latest/candidate.

With the new version installed as a snap, the next step was actually running it—which could be a lot easier. The snap produces a separate Firefox icon in Ubuntu’s launcher, but there’s no way I know of to readily distinguish between the icon for the system firefox and the new snap-installed firefox. After some hit-and-miss frustration, I finally dropped to the terminal and ran it directly by issuing the fully pathed command /snap/firefox/current/firefox.

Multi Picture-in-Picture Mode

In December 2019, Firefox introduced Picture-in-Picture mode—an additional overlay control on in-browser embedded videos that allows the user to detach the video from the browser. Once detached, the video has no window dressing whatsoever—no title bar, min/max/close, etc.

PiP mode allows users who tile their windows—automatically or manually—to watch said video while consuming a bare minimum of screen real estate.

Firefox 86 introduces the concept of multiple simultaneous Picture-in-Picture instances. Prior to build 86, hitting the PiP control on a second video would simply reattach the first video to its parent tab and detach the second. Now, you can have as many floating, detached video windows as you’d like—potentially turning any monitor into something reminiscent of a security DVR display.

The key thing to realize about multi-PiP is that the parent tabs must remain open—if you navigate away from the parent tab of an existing PiP window, the PiP window itself closes as well. Once I realized this, I had no difficulty surrounding my Firefox 86 window with five detached, simultaneously playing video windows.

Total Cookie Protection

In December, we reported on Firefox 85’s introduction of cache partitioning—a scheme which makes it more difficult for third parties to figure out where you have and have not been on the Internet. Firefox 86 ups the ante again, with a scheme Mozilla is calling “Total Cookie Protection.”

In a nutshell, Total Cookie Protection restricts the ability of third parties to monitor your movement around the Web using embedded elements such as scripts or iframes. This prevents tracking cookies from Facebook, Amazon, et al. from “following you around the web.”

In theory, cookies were already strictly per-site—so contoso.com cannot set or read cookies belonging to facebook.com, and vice versa. But in practice, if contoso.com willingly embeds active Facebook elements in its site, the user’s browser treats those elements as belonging to Facebook itself. That means Facebook can set the value of a cookie while you’re browsing contoso.com, then read that value again later when you’re actually at Facebook (or when you’re at other, entirely unrelated sites which also embed Facebook content).

Total Cookie Protection nerfs this misfeature by creating separate “cookie jars” based on the identity of the URL actually present in the address bar. With this feature enabled, a Facebook script running at contoso.com can still set and read a Facebook cookie—but that cookie lives within the contoso.com cookie jar only. When the same user browses facebook.com directly, later, Facebook cannot read, write, or even detect the presence of a Facebook cookie within the contoso.com cookie jar, or vice versa.

This isn’t a panacea against tracking, by any means—for example, it does nothing to prevent scripts from Facebook, Amazon, et al. from uploading data about your Web travels to their own servers, to profile you there. But it does, at least, keep them from using your own computer’s storage to do the dirty work for them.

No, the other TCP

If you want to enable Total Cookie Protection (and we really, really wish Mozilla had picked a name that didn’t initialize to TCP), you’ll first need to set your Enhanced Tracking Protection to the Strict profile. To do so, click the shield icon to the left of the address bar (visible when browsing any actual website; not visible on the blank New Tab screen) and click Protection Settings. From there, you can change your ETP profile from Standard to Strict.

Total Cookie Protection has a few, apparently hard-coded exemptions for third-party login providers—for example, logging into YouTube with a personal Gmail account still allowed a visit to Gmail.com in another tab to instantly load the correct inbox without the need to log in again separately.

Mozilla warns that the Strict Enhanced Tracking Profile may break some sites entirely—and we believe Mozilla—but in our own cursory testing, we didn’t encounter any problems. We had no difficulty with loading and logging in to Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and several other major sites.

Listing image by Airwolfhound / Flickr

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LG enters fray with Google, Amazon, Roku for TV operating system dominance

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LG has announced that it will begin licensing its webOS TV software for use by other TV manufacturers. That will put webOS in direct competition with other platforms in use across TV brands, such as alternatives from Roku, Amazon, and Google.

LG says “over 20 TV manufacturers” have “committed to the webOS partnership” and names RCA, Ayonz, and Konka as examples. They’ll ship the OS in their TVs and, in so doing, gain access to voice control features, LG’s AI algorithms, and a fairly robust library of already built streaming apps like Netflix, YouTube, or Disney+.

For smaller manufacturers, this is more cost-effective than developing these features on their own or lobbying companies like Netflix or Disney to support new platforms.

At the annual Consumer Electronics Show this January, LG announced webOS 6, a major revamp of the interface that adopts a design language that more closely resembles what’s found in most other TV operating systems. However, licensees of webOS will at least for now be limited to an earlier version of webOS which has the old interface.

In addition to any licensing fees, LG will be able to leverage this larger install base to profit from a more robust advertising network and from larger-scale user data collection. The company will also put its LG Channels content operation on more TVs. Further, LG has bigger ambitions for webOS than just TVs, so this move aids the company’s efforts to make webOS more ubiquitous as the software expands into cars, home appliances, and other products.

Users may balk at the advertising and data collection, but there is one upside for them: a larger install base for webOS will likely lead to more frequently updated, higher-quality apps from content companies.

As is the custom, this announcement came with a published statement from a prominent executive at the company—in this case, LG Home Entertainment President Park Hyoung-sei, who said:

The webOS platform is one of the easiest and most convenient way to access millions of hours of movies and TV shows… By welcoming other manufacturers to join the webOS TV ecosystem, we are embarking on a new path that allows many new TV owners to experience the same great UX and features that are available on LG TVs. We look forward to bringing these new customers into the incredible world of webOS TV.

webOS for TVs as we currently know it dates back to 2014, and reviewers and users have admittedly responded well to it because it’s one of the nicer-to-use TV operating systems. Part of its ease of use stems from the Wii remote-like magic remote that comes with LG TVs; LG’s press release says that partners who license webOS will ship TVs with similar remotes.

LG previously released an open source version of webOS in 2018, and Samsung announced plans to make its Tizen TV OS available for licensing by other TV manufacturers back in 2019. But a year and a half later, we haven’t heard anything more concrete about the latter.

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Google Maps for Android officially gets dark mode support

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Google Maps has finally decided to support dark mode on Android 539 days after it officially launched Android 10. Google’s latest blog post says that dark mode in Google Maps is “soon expanding to all Android users globally,” making the feature official after lots of public experiments.

Google’s uneven rollout strategy makes it hard to nail down when any feature officially “launches.” Some users have had dark mode for a while, though, through various experiments and early rollouts. Google has been teasing a dark mode for Google Maps since October 2019, and experimental rollouts hit some users in September 2020. Google Maps has also been showing a dark-colored map in navigation mode for some time, but that’s not the same thing as a comprehensive dark mode for all the UI elements.

If Google Maps is following Android’s best practices, the UI should automatically switch over to the dark theme if your system settings have dark mode enabled. Google says you’ll also be able to find a new “theme” section in the Google Maps settings, where you can toggle the feature manually. The Google Maps dark mode that has been floating around for a while has been on a server-side switch. The code is already on your device, so there’s no version we can point to that will enable dark mode; you just have to wait for Google to flag your account.

With Google Maps finally on the dark mode train, that should cover all of Google’s major apps. The Play Store, Gmail, Google Assistant, Chrome, Calendar, Drive, Photos, and YouTube all support dark mode.

Listing image by Google

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